In a tense meeting Monday, USD 257 board members retained the district’s face mask policy, meaning the district will strongly encourage — but not mandate — students, teachers and staff wear face masks.
From the start, emotions ran high. About a dozen members of the public attended the meeting and were twice given the opportunity to voice their concerns. Their comments, and those of board members to follow, laid bare the divisions of a national debate that has only increased in fervor as the delta variant of the coronavirus surges across the country.
At the meeting’s open, Jessica Quinhones, Iola, gave an impassioned speech imploring board members to reckon with a rising number of active cases and the more contagious Delta variant. “I just want to keep my son safe,” she said.
Rachel Haigler, Carlyle, told board members that she knows “masks aren’t perfect, but our children need whatever protection we can give them.”
Luke Bycroft, Iola, however, expressed his opposition to mask use, contending they are not effective. Heather Luedke, a teacher for the district, described how difficult it was to teach phonics with a mask and that doing so had caused her health problems.
Because the virus is spread by airborne respiratory particles, scientific and medical communities recommend wearing face masks, especially when around those not vaccinated. Other measures encouraged are social distancing, frequent hand-washing and, most importantly, getting vaccinated.
Superintendent of Schools Stacey Fager began discussion on the district’s COVID-19 policy by reminding board members that their current protocol dates back to April of this year. Mask use is still recommended, Fager stated, and a variety of cleaning protocols and safety measures are still in place.
Fager also mentioned that current guidance from the SEK Multi-County Health Department shows that vaccinated individuals who are exposed to coronavirus do not have to be quarantined.
“Theoretically,” Fager said, “this means that if all of our eligible students and teachers were vaccinated we would not have to send a single student into quarantine,” noting that the process of identifying close contacts, contacting their parents or guardians, and arranging for remote education is taxing for the district and hampers student learning.
“I would like for parents to consider this,” he continued. “It makes sense for us all to look at the opportunities to keep our kids in school and for the district to provide those opportunities to students and staff.
“That said, I realize that complete vaccination is not going to be a reality.”
Fager reminded the board that the district will hold a vaccination clinic on Aug. 20 at which free vaccinations for all adults and children 12 and older will be provided.
NANCY TOLAND urged the board to consider, if not a mandate, face coverings for all students and teachers, at least for elementary students, who are unable to be vaccinated against the virus. Vaccines are currently available only for those age 12 and older.
“On April 12, we had 10 current cases,” Toland said. “We now have 57. To me, that speaks volumes. We know our vaccination rate is low in this county.”
About 41% of Allen Countians are fully vaccinated.
Elementary age youths have no way to get the vaccine and protect themselves, Toland noted. “The Delta variant is hospitalizing children as young as eight months, and it’s happening in this county. We have to care for these children. And if it means a mask, it’s not the best solution, but we don’t have another way that I’m aware of.”
Dan Willis, board president, noted how trying this issue has been for board members.
“Some in the room may not realize how much this board has struggled with this. It’s been very trying for us. Everyone is worried if we’re doing the right thing. We all want to do the right thing.”
Willis asked how quickly the district could change in the case of a surge in cases. Fager, who consulted administrative staff, replied the district could change course “within a day, definitely within a week.”
BOARD member Jennifer Coltrane asked how many elementary students tested positive for COVID-19 last year. Fager wasn’t sure, but said 200-300 students were quarantined last school year at one time or another, roughly a quarter of the student population.
Coltrane then expressed opposition to mask use in schools, saying, “I think masking is ridiculous. I think it’s wrong. We did it for a year. I think it’s time to be done with that.” She also showed her reluctance to changing district policy over the school year. “I want to know what we’re going to do and that we’re going to stick with it for a while,” said Coltrane.
That brought a response from board member Tony Leavitt. “I’m sorry, Jennifer, but if we determine that we’re going to stick with our current policy and a month or two months into the year we have a big outbreak, then we need to be able to respond appropriately.”
If an outbreak were to occur, then “I’m going to say we need to go immediately to masks,” Leavitt said. “This is something we need to be flexible with.”
Leavitt also expressed concern with the quality of virtual education, noting that last year’s experience was hard on students, teachers and parents.
“Our teachers did the very best they could” with virtual education, “but the kids who didn’t have support at home didn’t do well,” Leavitt said. “These kids can’t stand this for two years in a row.”
With the board at an impasse, Coltrane offered a motion that the district not require masking, vaccination against COVID-19, or random testing for any student, teacher or visitor. The motion was seconded by board member Doug Dunlap. The vote was 3-3, with Coltrane, Dunlap and board member Jerad Larkey supporting the motion. Leavitt, Toland and Willis opposed the motion.
THUS, after lengthy debate, nothing will change for students and teachers as they return to school next week. USD 257 will stick with its current COVID-19 protocols encouraging, but not mandating, mask use.
An earlier version of this article stated that Heather Luedke, a teacher for USD 257, contended that masks were ineffective. That was incorrect, and the article has since been modified. The Register regrets the error.